“I don’t believe women should be doctors and I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t become one.”
I was 18 – a freshman in pre-med who was…gasp…not a man. I guess I was, and had always been, a freshwoman. The words came from my chemistry professor, and, supposedly, my advisor. I gave up on pre-med, but not because of him. Encouraged by my freshman composition prof, who gushed about my very cheeky first essay in her class, I went back to my first love – words.
Fast forward a few years (ahem!) and I am writing my first book, More Than Magic, in which my female protagonist is not only an MD, but a PhD as well – a physician scientist and a damn good one – who undertakes a dangerous trek underground to save a DEA agent’s life.
Back when that professor was throwing ice water on my aspirations to become a doctor, selling such a story to a publisher would have been a bit tough. But thankfully times have changed, and the representation of women in genre fiction has changed right along with them.
Before the term “geek girl” existed, I hung with the gang who talked about books and science fiction shows and actually got their homework done during study hall. My (overflowing) bookshelves (and my Kindle and my audio player) are a diary of my love affair with science fiction and fantasy – Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, James Schmitz, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula LeGuin, way too much Tolkien… Well, you get the drift. But they are also filled with names like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Linda Howard, Sandra Brown, Jayne Ann Krentz, Amanda Quick, J.D. Robb, and so on.
Basically, I grew up reading speculative fiction AND romance and still love all of those sub-genres – science fiction, fantasy, romantic suspense, historical romance, urban fantasy, contemporary romance, and books that mash up those genres beyond all recognition (much to the publishers and booksellers, dismay). I read science fiction and fantasy for the hope it gives me – because as a genre it says we will survive into the future and our creativity and adaptability will let us flourish there.
I read romance for almost the same reason – because, as a genre, it says that relationships based on love and partnership are the most resilient and will ensure humanity’s survival. And I also read romance because, as a genre, it challenges the long-standing cultural trope that says women should not enjoy sex. No – challenge is not the right word. It destroys it.
You will also notice that my taste in science fiction and fantasy authors tended toward those with (albeit stereotypical for their time) strong female characters. When the characters were mostly male, as with Heinlein’s juveniles, I imagined them like me – as female.
In the romances, I didn’t gravitate toward the “damsel in distress” trope or the “kidnapping as courtship” trope. I looked for heroines with brains and quick wits as well as complex plots with a touch of mystery or a bit of magic or a hint of science or all the above. If I had to, I would skip scenes and ignore entire characters in order to enjoy the story. In other words, I reached into the stories I loved and made them my own. If I couldn’t make them match up with my view of the world no matter how hard I tried, they didn’t remain on my keeper shelf.
A perfect example of skipping scenes, a LOT of them, in order to enjoy a story I loved is Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, published in 1986. Lois fell victim to some romance tropes of the time (or perhaps was badly misguided by her editor or publisher) by having her heroine, Cordelia, the brilliant and capable commander of an astronomical survey vessel, get captured and kidnapped by an opposition admiral. Of course, Cordelia promptly falls in love with her captor (shudder) with no evident chemistry between the two. And later, heaven forbid, she must be rescued from a near rape while still held captive – “damsel in distress” and “kidnapping as courtship” all in one!
But Lois redeems herself in later books, allowing Cordelia to become the heroine we knew she could be and the ultimate role model for Miles Vorkosigan, who, although he adores his father the admiral, emulates his brilliant and powerful, but ultimately diplomatic, mother. The sequel, Barrayar, in which Cordelia really does kick ass, won the Hugo and Locus Awards.
A perfect example of an older (well, twenty years ago is ancient in book terms) romance where the heroine is not at all what most non-romance reading folks expect of a regency-era romance is Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, published in 1995.
Although the hero is exactly what you expect, a hulking brute of a beast, and the heroine is a virginal bluestocking, the author brilliantly blows away the formula and provides those of us who hate those stereotypes with witty dialogue and a heroine who really is strong and intelligent and very far from simpering. The reader laughs at the way she brings the befuddled hero to his emotional awakening and turns the trope on its ear. And again, Lord of Scoundrels has raked in the awards, proving that most readers really do reject the stereotypes.
Oh, there are plenty of books (and movies) out there that make me headdesk and bemoan the future of gender equality. They sparkle and shine and have their own nail polish collection, but they also have women like me shaking our heads and longing for Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels to show up and give the “hero” a good tongue lashing or Cordelia from Barrayar to show up and cut off some sparkly heads.
I don’t know why some women delight in reading/viewing stories about women who are essentially empty-headed vessels being molded, shaped, restrained and ultimately transformed by the men they adore. Perhaps it is because it reassures them that they really don’t have to take responsibility for their own growth and transformation if they allow an all-powerful or extremely rich (or both) male to do it for them.
I do know that my friends from study hall way back when, like most of my friends and fellow authors today, would likely scratch their heads at the popularity of these stories, spend a bit of time dissecting and analyzing the puzzle, then turn back to the kinds of stories they enjoy reading and writing.
Thankfully, these days, with capable and tough heroines like Mercy Thompson and Rachel Morgan and Eve Dallas around, those of us who cringe at the example set by some the heroines in some popular genre fiction can retreat into our Kindles or under our headphones and rejoice that there are a lot more good examples to choose from today than there have ever been before.
So if I could go back to address my very misogynistic professor, I would say this: “I became a doctor in spite of you. I also became an environmental blogger and a museum conservator and an attorney. I became a creator of worlds – worlds where women can be physicians and scientists and leaders and mothers and heroes, all at the same time.
This guest post written by Donna June Cooper originally accompanied my review of her book More Than Magic for KODT magazine. At this point all that bonus material is lost, but Donna sent me her post so I could post it again. You can visit her at: http://www.donnajunecooper.com/